On Friday, I spent six wonderful, draining, emotional hours with Mom and Dad in the nursing home. Visitors came and went as Mom slept.
- The primary Hospice nurse came in the room to answer questions. We asked for signs to look for that she might need more pain killer. She told us candidly that she was amazed Mom had made it through the night (which surprised me, since all the health care staff had been reluctant to say anything indicating a timeline). She cried as she told me and Dad how special Mom was, and how rare it was to get to meet someone like her. She said several times she could tell Mom had Joy, and Loved Life. We nodded in agreement and smiled (I thought, "Oh, if you only knew!"). When she left the room I said to dad with mock irritation, "What?! So Mom is 'head of the class' in her nursing home too? She can't go anywhere without excelling!"
- A former in-home caregiver, Cheryl, came and sang to Mom (In the Garden, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Sweet By and By). She had the boldest faith of any of us, and as she wiped Moms face, told her firmly, "It's almost time to see Jesus!" We had all been too shy and doubtful to say something so absolute, wondering silently to ourselves if such a place as heaven could really exist, and whether we will have any faith left to speak of without Mom's example. But of course, coming from a Bible-believing sister, these were words of comfort for Mom.
- My mother-in-law came and sat with us for a few hours. She used to work in the very same nursing home, in the special care unit for Alzheimer's patients. She said she loved working there, and for years afterward, whenever she saw a grey-haired person in a wheelchair, her heart would flutter. She told us how strong mom looked, and how beautiful. It was so comforting to have her there.
- Mom's room on Friday was like the eye of a storm: serene and powerful. Outside her door was chaos and confusion (figuratively and literally), but being in her presence, on the very border between life and death, nothing else mattered. We all gravitated toward the head of her bed, cooling her face with a washcloth, holding her hand, stroking her arm as it lay on top of the sheet, speaking our love and concern (my dad asked multiple times, "How are you doing, Sweetie?" as calmly and naturally as if she was just under the weather with a cold). She was the epicenter of our concern, and all the ripples of influence and importance originated with her.
- There was one close call Friday evening when Dad and I were sure she was within an hour or less of her last breath. All the tears and panic resurfaced and the losses of the last six years surged through our memories with a sense of urgency. This is it. Dad phoned all my siblings to update them and give them another chance to say goodbye if they wanted. I asked him if he wanted some time alone with her. When he said yes I couldn't bring myself to leave the room right away, and stood at the edge of the small sink in her room to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. From the mirror above the sink, I could see mom and dad's faces. It was the same scene I'd observed all evening, but the reflected image seemed surreal. Mom's face was still relaxed, mouth open, eyes closed. But seeing her reflection, her face directed toward Dad's, I was struck by the look of love on her face. Her head was titled as if she were listening intently, commiserating, empathizing (one of her greatest strengths). Dad wept. I forced myself to leave the room and allow them this one last intimacy.
- I was only in the lobby for a minute or two before Dad texted me, Come back, Emily. "It must really be the end," I thought, and walked as fast as I could back down the hall to her room. My next thought was, "Either this is the bitter end, or there's been a flash of lightening and a miracle, and Mom will be standing full-bodied and healthy at Dad's side." Neither scenario was true. She was unchanged; dad was wiping his face with Kleenex.
Sunday morning, I got a slow start to the day and planned on bringing Dad lunch at the nursing home. After showering, I went outside to my little garden and picked flowers for Mom: sunflowers, roses, and zinnias. At 10:20, Dad called. I could tell from his tear-filled voice. He simply said, "Hi, Emily. It's over." I said I loved him and that I'd be right there.
I felt relief. Her suffering was over. The haze of morphine and dementia was also over. I got in my car and sobbed, "Thank you," overwhelmed with gratitude for Mom and that Dad was with her, and that the waiting was over. I got to the nursing home in less than 10 minutes (even though every other driver on the road seemed determined to go 20 mph). In the hall, a nurse made eye contact and said "Your Dad is in the room." I smiled. I knew. He wouldn't be anywhere else. I came through the door and hugged him hard.
The day before, I didn't think Mom could look any less like herself. She had become so frail, so brittle-looking, so distant even while sleeping. But there was no comparison Sunday morning. The nurses had repositioned her and there were no wrinkles in her bedding. Her skin was whiter. She was gone. I stroked her hair and kissed her still-warm forehead. The struggle was over. The uncertainty about how much time we had left was gone. The ache was deep but so was the reassurance that I had said to Mom everything I needed to and supported Dad in the best way I knew how. It was enough, and it was good.
Dad told me that a friend of his brought him coffee an hour or so earlier, and they sat in the courtyard outside the dining hall. After half an hour or so, Dad said he wanted to go back and visit Mom again and his friend left. Dad noticed right away that Mom's breathing was different; the pauses were longer between breaths. He checked her feet, they were cool and her legs were mottled. He cried with her and said his goodbyes again. He held her hand and prayed, "Lord, into your hands I commit her spirit." And she didn't breathe again. It was finished.
Thursday morning, September 5th, we'll honor Mom with a memorial service and celebration of her life. I'm looking forward to being surrounded by people who love her. The service details have been in place since the end of April, so there's been very little planning or decision making necessary (thank goodness). We've collected photos and Mom's pen and ink artwork and calligraphy to display. All five kids are writing a letter to her in place of a eulogy.
It's going to be a day full of meaning and love, just like her life.